The West Virginia National Guard is helping secure the world’s most popular sporting event.
FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, projects five billion people will watch this edition of the Men's World Cup in Qatar, a small Middle Eastern nation on the Persian Gulf.
The 32-team tournament takes place every four years, with the 2022 version starting Sunday.
The U.S. team begins play Monday.
West Virginia and Qatar have collaborated through the Guard’s State Partnership Program for four years.
“Since 2018, Qatar has stressed the importance of securing their country against all threats during the World Cup, and we’ve been helping them achieve this goal since our partnership’s inception,” said Maj. Allen Jordan, the mission’s bilateral affairs officer.
The Guard has significant experience securing major events in the U.S.
Local officials often request Weapons of Mass Destruction-Civil Support Teams to advise and assist authorities before and during events with large crowds and huge television audiences like the Super Bowl or the World Series.
Security experts believe such events are inviting “soft targets” for terrorist groups.
Jordan said the Qataris prepared for the World Cup by hosting other large soccer competitions like the Arab Cup and the Lusail Super Cup.
“While these events have identified shortfalls, they are actively planning and preparing to fix those shortfalls in order to successfully host the World Cup,” he said.
Maj. Erik Sarson, the West Virginia Guard’s SPP director, said the cooperation between his state and Qatar has progressed well after a slow start due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The relationship is great, especially in that realm, whether it's just World Cup, in general, or [chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear], in particular,” he said.
While the Guard has helped Qatar’s government with the World Cup, Sarson said Guardsmen won’t be hands-on during the completion.
“We are sending people over, but it's going to be more of an advisory role, rather than a direct role,” he said.
Sarson said Col. Marty Timko, the commander of the West Virginia Air Guard's 167th Airlift Wing, is serving as the U.S. Central Command Senior Liaison Officer to Qatar for the World Cup.
The West Virginia Guard’s Maj. Matt Walter will act as a CBRN Staff Advisor/LNO to the Qatar Weapons of Mass Destruction Defense Unit.
Sarson added all the West Virginia Guard officers are focusing on bilateral preparation and executing security support for the World Cup.
The West Virginia Guard has engaged with Qatari forces on “subject-matter expertise exchanges,” training sessions lasting one to two weeks.
“The Qataris have been very receptive to each and every SMEE and engagement pertaining to World Cup operations,” said Jordan, who’s been in Qatar since July.
“Since we’ve been working with them since 2018, we have expanded the breadth and depth of the engagements to increase our partner’s proficiencies and capabilities,” he added.
The Guard paired with the Qatari Armed Forces on three mission sets.
The first mission set involved chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive operations.
Jordan said Qatari forces were trained on handling mass decontamination, identifying contaminates and establishing tactical casualty care in contaminated environments.
The Qataris also learned about explosive ordnance disposal.
The second mission set dealt with crowd control and security operations.
Jordan said the Guard’s crowd control SMEEs discussed traffic control points and security operations for large-scale civilian events.
The final mission set involved military operations supporting civilian authorities.
The lessons included advising and facilitating inter-ministerial engagements like Invincible Sentry 21.
Invincible Sentry 21 is a five-day CENTCOM training event helping improve operational effectiveness in unfamiliar environments and enhancing interoperability between nations.
Qatar hosted Invincible Sentry 21 last year.
“We've had several engagements there in Doha, both planning and actual,” Sarson said of Qatar’s capital city. "And we've had some in West Virginia as well."
Earlier this year, the West Virginia Guard hosted 30 members of Qatar’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Defense Unit and Military Medical Services for two weeks in Charleston.
The engagement highlighted how the Guard supports state and local police and fire departments, creating a whole-of-government approach to crises.
“This is an integration aspect,” Capt. Les Smith of the Charleston Fire Department told WV Metro News in March. "This is the first time they’ve actually worked with a civilian agency."
“After talking to them for the past few weeks, at home, [the Qataris] don’t have an interagency partnership with their fire department, so this is a new thing for them,” he continued.
“This is a good chance for them to see how an event of this magnitude would truly operate in their area."
The SPP additionally featured Ohio National Guard soldiers helping Qatar’s Air Defense Force prepare for operations during the 2022 World Cup.
West Virginia also pairs with Peru through the SPP.